Thousands in 'Wilson 4' legal limbo
The Arizona  Republic
Jul. 25, 2005
Lupita Celestino was too far away to hear the speeches decrying the possible deportation of four top-performing high school graduates. And, at age 12, she was too far from fretting about being in the same situation as those students. Even though, like them, she is in this country illegally.

"Something is going to happen. It needs to," she said, resting along a wall near the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office on Central Avenue. A few feet away, politicians, lawyers and advocates spoke to reporters, cameras and a crowd that occasionally broke out in applause and chants.

The rally outside immigration headquarters last week was in support of four graduates of Wilson Charter High School in east Phoenix. All four were brought over the border illegally as toddlers. All performed well enough in school to get invited to a science competition in New York. All were busted by a border guard at the Canadian border while headed for a side trip to Niagara Falls.

The drama over the "Wilson Four" culminated on Thursday with a hearing in immigration court. The judge threw out the case on a technicality, but the government is expected to appeal.

But even though the threat of deportation is temporarily gone, the four students are still in a legal limbo. Just like thousands of students who don't have permission to be here. No matter how hard they study, no matter how well they do in school, there is a legal wall ahead of them, seemingly more impenetrable than the porous border in the desert.

"Sometimes I think that I'm going to college or go to a university and be a doctor and help little kids," said Lupita, who will be in seventh grade next year at Phoenix Advantage Charter School, "but I don't know what's going to happen in the future."

The cost of college is one hurdle. Undocumented students can't apply for federal student loans and can't receive scholarships from state schools. Even if they earn a degree, their lack of legal status will keep them out of their desired jobs.

Lupita has already seen a friend lose hope. She was an 18-year-old who had good grades and college aspirations. But the daunting price of tuition and the seeming futility ended that ambition. She is now working at a mall food court.

"That'd be, like, unfair that I get good grades and you're like, 'Oh, you cannot work at anything,' " Lupita said. "Just because you're a Mexican or you're an immigrant, it's like they don't like you or something."

Lupita came over from Mexico at age 3. She doesn't remember the journey, and that's probably for the best.

The "coyote" told her mother, Aida Lopez, the walk would be one day and one night. It ended up being two weeks. Lopez said her daughter toddled alongside her throughout.

The trip is so far out of Lupita's mind and so far removed from her reality that she can laugh about it. "(My mom) tells me that I was scared, that I wanted food, tacos," Lupita said, laughing like she was talking about a trip to Disneyland.

I asked her if she could imagine being hungry or thirsty like that now. She gave the exaggerated "No" of an American teenager.

Her parents do the types of labor most commonly associated with undocumented immigrants, jobs that can be had with a fake or non-existent Social Security number. Her father builds houses. That morning he was laying foundations at a subdivision. Her mother cleans homes. "I don't want her to do what I do, cleaning bathrooms," Lopez said. "I want her to be somebody."

Her fate rests largely in Congress.

Three immigration reform bills have been introduced. All of them provide some mechanism for people already here to earn some type of legal status, although all seem to mainly focus on immigrants who do manual labor. A bill that focused on college students, called the DREAM Act, has not come close to passage.

There is no way to know how many undocumented students are in the school system. Districts have numbers for "English learners," but those wouldn't count students like Lupita, whose English is already stronger than her Spanish. "Sometimes I forget stuff in Spanish," she said, "and I talk to my mom in English and she says, 'What?' "

Federal law requires schools to educate children whether they are here legally or not. But federal law also says that migrants who crossed the border illegally after 1986 cannot apply for legal status without returning to their "country of origin" and waiting for at least 10 years. Even if they could barely walk when they crossed the border.

Compared with the other dilemmas brought about by illegal immigration, such as deaths in the desert and shootouts among smugglers, this one seems pretty nice. The problem is what to do with thousands of bright, educated and motivated students who lack permission to be here.

But given the volatility of any illegal immigrant issue, even this one won't be easy to solve.

Still, amid the chants and speeches, Lupita remained hopeful. For herself and those she knows in the same situation. Her best friend wants to be a doctor, too, she said, and the two talk about going to the same school, maybe working at the same hospital.

"But let's see what happens," she said. "I want to keep on trying. Something needs to happen." She crossed both sets of fingers. "I hope so. I hope so."

Reach Ruelas at (602) 444-8473 or